Just Finished: Michael Flynn’s “Eifelheim”

TL;DR” Recommended unreservedly, but not as good as I was hoping it would be.

Longer review:

“Eifelheim” feels like a great book (meaning “great” in the sense of “a work of fine English literature”).

It had all the trappings of greatness. It had philosophy, it had a dramatic historical backdrop, it had aliens…what was it missing?

A plot would have been helpful.

Zing!

This is another of those reviews I write where I feel guilty (like my recent review of “One Bright Star to Guide Them”), because while I can’t say I know Michael Flynn I’ve gone back and forth with him and I am a regular at his brilliant blog, and I’ve liked most of the short fiction up on his site. He is a good prose writer, a brilliant set-builder (Oberhochenwald, or Eifelheim, is one of the most vivid historical settings I’ve ever read about), and he clearly has great imagination. The book was good! I recommend it!

But it could have been so much better.

Again, things that could have helped: A plot.

SPOILERS! From here on out. Be forewarned. I’ll spoil as little as I can, but some stuff is going to get through.

The protagonist, Fr. Dietrich, has no character arc at all. I loved him when I met him. That was his problem. There was nowhere to go with Fr. Dietrich. He was the Atticus Finch of the novel. He starts off as a philosophical, pious, likable small town Priest with a dark-ish past, and ends…exactly the same way. There’s no character development.

“Ah!” you cry, “But it’s really about the aliens!”

Maybe so, but then, even the alien character arc is completed relatively early.

This sounds odd. Let me try again. We establish in the novel three plot threads for the aliens (the krenken):

1) Repairing the ship and going home

2) As repairs go slowly and they adapt to life in Oberhochenwald, consider converting to Christianity

3) Acting out their new faith

The most important alien character, Hans, converts relatively early on in the novel. So there’s his character development. The development of the other aliens fairly mirrors his: Something happens to convert them, or not.

Hans and Dietrich are both philosophers, and have many philosophical discussions. Your stomach for this depends on your tastes, I suppose. As you can imagine, I ate that stuff up, which is good, because it was the meat of the novel. The relationship between Dietrich and the aliens is moving.

I liked Dietrich’s late meeting with William of Ockham. That’s how you incorporate a historical figure into your story seamlessly.

But again, there is no plot. It’s just, “The aliens showed up, and here’s what happened until they all died”…which occurred, by the way, when the black plague arrived, though that was apparently (happy?) coincidence in this case. It was an approvingly horrific portrayal.

The problem is, none of the character arcs are truly completed. Dietrich? No, he is the same at the end as the beginning. Theresia? Nope, she just dies while still absolutely refusing to give any ground in her theory that the krenken are demons. Joachim? Not really. How does he change? Hilde? No, her “penance” of taking care of the krenken began at the beginning of the novel, and there was no new revelation about her character to up the ante at all.

The krenken? Well Hans, the most important, changes very little since his conversion around mid-book. A couple convert at the end, which is moving and powerful, but the krenken we talk to more than any other basically completed his character arc halfway through the novel.

The middles ages portion of the book just ends when Hans dies. No story is finished; he dies, the end. It all felt pointless…which might have been the point. Maybe the reader was supposed to ask if it was “really” pointless or not. But I don’t mean pointless in the silly sophomoric “So it didn’t MEAN anything, man?” sense. I mean “pointless” as in, I’m being told a story. A story that apparently didn’t make a huge difference in the protagonist’s character arc, because he remains perfect at both the end and the beginning. And Hans’ character arc was completed well before the end of the story. So when it ends, I don’t feel like anything more was really accomplished.

The non-middle ages portion of the novel is hardly worth mentioning, by the way. Save for a couple of amusing lines peppered in there I found neither protagonist particularly interesting or sympathetic, and was glad those sections were short. In truth, I have no clue why they existed at all. Sharon, especially, annoyed me to no end.

So “Eifelheim” was a novel that talked about grand ideas but didn’t accomplish anything of particular literary note. Why did I still like it, then? Well:

  • I loved Dietrich. He was like the ideal me.
  • I thought the portrayal of the conversion of the krenken was moving
  • While it could get a bit bogged down at times in technical detail, the historical accuracy of the novel, or the attempt to make it seem so, was absolutely incredible. I felt as if I knew the town of Oberhochenwald.
  • The philosophy perhaps got a tad repetitive at times, but I found the vast majority of it fascinating.
  • The people rang true; they acted like I thought people would act, and not cardboard cutouts.

Ultimately, if the ending of “Eifelheim” had pulled everything together you’d be reading a much different review. I was prepared to call this book a masterpiece – I thought it would  be! So the lack of a truly tight ending disappointed me.  If there were some sign that the author had a plan for where he was going with the novel by the end, some way to signify that a problem had been resolved or a character arc had been completed, something that had to do with the novel as a whole, a central question, well…the whole thing would have been much, much better.

But as it was, it felt like sound and fury, signifying…something, something good, but something that could have been so much better.

And that’s a damn shame.

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6 Responses to Just Finished: Michael Flynn’s “Eifelheim”

  1. But again, there is no plot. It’s just, “The aliens showed up, and here’s what happened until they all died”

    This is a somewhat baffling complaint, since (1) this is exactly the definition of a plot — I mean, literally: it’s the definition of ‘plot’ that Aristotle originally gave when he invented the general concept that it is a beginning, middle, and end that is not merely episodic, of an appropriate length, involving a change of luck. Unsurprisingly, then, your summary is very, very structurally similar to Aristotle’s famous summary of the plot of the Odyssey. And (2) it is an essential point of the story that the aliens didn’t all die in the story; some of them have a small but real chance of getting home because they had time to fix their ship, time that they only had because they learned the completely foreign concept of caritas, which is also precisely why Hans stays and dies.

    Pretty much everyone seems to agree that the modern sections are the weakest; it’s a case of a story outgrowing its original container, since they are all derived from the original novella that got the Hugo nomination, of which the novel is an expansion.

    • This is a somewhat baffling complaint, since (1) this is exactly the definition of a plot — I mean, literally: it’s the definition of ‘plot’ that Aristotle originally gave when he invented the general concept that it is a beginning, middle, and end that is not merely episodic, of an appropriate length, involving a change of luck.

      I don’t disagree. I had trouble wording it. What I meant was something like, the ending was unsatisfying. It felt incomplete in that sense.

      And (2) it is an essential point of the story that the aliens didn’t all die in the story; some of them have a small but real chance of getting home because they had time to fix their ship, time that they only had because they learned the completely foreign concept of caritas, which is also precisely why Hans stays and dies.

      The impression I got (which may be wrong) is that Hans and others lied and told the other aliens they had a chance to get home when in fact they were almost certainly going to die on the way back (confirmed when the promised medicine never materialized).

      But I could be wrong.

      Pretty much everyone seems to agree that the modern sections are the weakest; it’s a case of a story outgrowing its original container, since they are all derived from the original novella that got the Hugo nomination, of which the novel is an expansion.

      Yeah. They shouldn’t have been there at all.

      • The impression I got (which may be wrong) is that Hans and others lied and told the other aliens they had a chance to get home when in fact they were almost certainly going to die on the way back (confirmed when the promised medicine never materialized).

        The chance was certainly always extremely small, but I’m not sure why that would confirm that it failed; we really have no way at all to determine what happened to the leaving Krenken — all we know is that they did manage to leave. Admittedly, it’s been a while since the last time I read it; but the twin themes of the novel are hope and love.

        Yeah. They shouldn’t have been there at all.

        While admitting the weakness of them, I think this goes a bit too far; the novel entirely without them would necessarily have had a completely different structure and thus have been a very different story. Several of the things that happen take on significance only because the reader can see how they are relevant to the traces of the events in the modern day; and part of the story is structured by the triple alienness — the medievals are alien to the moderns, the Krenken (including many things the Krenken share with us) are alien to the medievals, and the Krenken are alien to the moderns (including the reader).

      • The chance was certainly always extremely small, but I’m not sure why that would confirm that it failed; we really have no way at all to determine what happened to the leaving Krenken — all we know is that they did manage to leave.

        This is true, but…Hans, I think it was, seemed pretty sure that the trip was going to fail.

        The medicine not materializing for them was at least not a good sign.

        Yeah, admittedly they COULD, maybe, have gotten back, but I don’t recall even the other krenken having particularly high hopes about that.

        While admitting the weakness of them, I think this goes a bit too far; the novel entirely without them would necessarily have had a completely different structure and thus have been a very different story.

        I think that while modern framing could have worked, this was not the way to execute it – it should have been peripheral. Perhaps a frame story at the beginning and ending, giving only necessary information…like a prologue revealing that the main character is working on a device that allows FTL travel and an epilogue wrapping things up. Lewis does something like this in “Out of the Silent Planet”.

        I REALLY did not like those sections, mostly because I really disliked Sharon. Tom was okay.

        Also, a lot of the exposition in those sections was dull.

        Remember, I thought it was a very good book. I just think it could have been even better.

      • The medicine not materializing for them was at least not a good sign.

        I would never have expected the medicine to materialize for them, anyway; the logistics problem alone for something like that would be enormously complicated.

    • The extended length may have been the issue. I felt as if the major character arcs had been completed before the story actually ended. It ended with Hans’ death, but I felt as if his character arc had been completed long before that.

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